50 years ago today, in the 5th game of the AVCO Cup Finals, the New England Whalers beat the Winnipeg Jets 9-6 to win the inaugural championship of the WHA.
The World Hockey Association (WHA) was founded in the early 70s as a rival to the National Hockey League (NHL). The WHA placed teams in several American cities that were considered nontraditional hockey markets and Canadian cities that were, at the time, constantly denied NHL teams. The new league went right after the NHL’s pocketbook. Thanks to notoriously stingy NHL contracts, the WHA was able to lure dozens of players away from the NHL, signing several of the games superstars to big money contracts(which the new league didn’t exactly have). The WHA was also notable for spearheading the push to bring in European players into North American hockey.
Although the league was never stable, with teams folding and relocating throughout its entire existence; one of the most successful teams, both financially and on the ice, was the New England Whalers. Originally based in Boston and playing home games at the Boston Garden and Boston Arena, the team signed a rather unusual high number of US born players, including Minnesotans Timothy Sheehan and Tommy Williams , and a handful of Massachusetts natives such as Larry Pleau, John Cunniff, Paul Hurley, and Kevin Ahearn. Along with former Detroit Red Wings star Tom Webster, notorious Boston Bruins tough-guy defender Ted Green(the team’s first Captain), backed by Pittsburgh Penguin goalie Al Smith, and with legendary Boston University coach Jack Kelley behind the bench; the Whalers came right out the gate swinging.
The Whalers were the best team of the inaugural WHA season with 94 points and a record of 46 wins 30 loses and 2 ties. They cruised through the first two rounds of the playoff with relative ease losing only 2 games, setting up a match up with the second best team in the league; The Winnipeg Jets lead by former Chicago Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull. In the Finals, New England won Game One on home ice rather easily 7-2. They would put another 7 goals to the Jets’ 4 when the series moved to Manitoba for Game Two. Still in Winnipeg, the Jets would strike back in Game Three in a 4-3 victory. Coming back to Boston, The Whalers won Game Four 4-2. On Sunday afternoon May 6th 1973 at the Boston Garden and with a national television audience watching the, Game Five began. The Whalers started out fast, coming out gunning for the throats of the Jets with winning a championship on their minds. New England scored 5 goals in the first period, and were looking to blow out the Jets. But Winnipeg would begin to mount a comeback pulling the game close and the third period began with the Whalers up 6-5. In the third, Larry Pleau scored 2 goals with a span of two minutes, completing a hat trick, and the Whalers would go on to win Game Five 9-6 and the series 4 games to 1. The Whalers were WHA Champions and able to hoist the AVCO Cup… except there was one slight problem… The AVCO Cup didn’t exist yet. The design of the WHA Championship trophy had not been completed when the Whalers won, so the team had to skate a victory lap in front of 11,186 fans at the Boston Garden with the Eastern Conference trophy they had won in the semifinals.
Flushed with the thrill of victory’ Whaler president Howard Baldwin issued a challenge to the National Hockey League that New England would play the Stanley Cup winner in a one-game playoff on neutral ice to prove who was the best hockey team in North America. Some hockey pundits chuckled at Baldwin’s bravado, though the NHL never officially responded to the challenge after the Montreal Canadiens beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals the very next day.
The New England Whalers, of course, were not long for Boston. The team found themselves at the bottom of the pecking order of teams at the Boston Garden, and the Boston Arena was far too small for the needs of a professional team. With nearby Providence and Hartford both in process of build Civic Centers in their respective cities, the New England Whalers were on the move. After serious consideration to both cities the Whalers would, of course, choose to move the team to the Connecticut capital. The team start playing in Hartford for the 74-75 season… well, sort of… in 1974; the Hartford Civic Center, like the AVCO Cup they won in ‘73, wasn’t completely finished yet and they had to begin the campaign playing in Springfield Massachusetts.
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